Three hundred and fifty-eight years ago today, on March 2, 1657, one of the great disasters of the Eastern world began unfolding in the populous city of Edo, which is now Tokyo, Japan. In the old ward of Hongo, just north of the Imperial Palace, a fire began somehow in one of the crowded neighborhoods of wood and paper that characterized Edo in that era. As usually happens, environmental factors exacerbated what was almost certainly a human error of some kind. Japan in 1656-57 was parched by a terrible drought with little rain having fallen in several months. On this day, March 2, strong northwest winds, possibly hurricane-force, were blowing across the Kanto Plain on which the city of Edo is situated. A gust of wind fanned flames emanating from one of the city’s many temples. The nearby buildings went up quickly. Fanned by the winds, for three days the fire raged, consuming nearly everything in its path. The human cost of the disaster was incredible: 100,000 people are said to have died.

The exact cause of the blaze is impossible to tell with certainty. A legend that circulated after the fire held that a Shinto priest was burning a cursed kimono at the temple when the gust of wind came up. This story sounds like romantic embellishment to me, but it could well be true. The causes of fires in old cities are notoriously difficult to pin down, as the story of the great Moscow fire of 1812 illustrates. What is undeniable is the damage done by the Great Fire of Meireki. Scorching district after district of the Japanese capital, the blaze even encroached on Edo Castle, the seat of the shoguns; the central keep was saved but there was much damage to outer buildings.

Japan was in an interesting period in 1657. For less than 60 years, since the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the Tokugawa clan had effectively controlled the government, united the island and largely closed it to outsiders. The Great Fire of Meireki is so named because it fell near the beginning of the Meireki era, the reign of Emperor Go-Sai, who sat on the throne of Japan from 1655 to 1663, but in the Tokugawa period emperors were mere figureheads, with real political power resting in the hands of the shoguns. Tokugawa Ietsuna, the great-grandson of Ieyasu who established the government, was shogun at this time. The new political order, which ended centuries of infighting among Japan’s warrior clans, had profound environmental consequences; the Tokugawa shoguns were uniquely environmentally conscious, passing laws and establishing procedures, for example, to preserve and protect the island’s forest resources. This preservation was to have profound effects in later eras.

edo castle tower

This turret surrounding Edo Castle, originally built in 1659, was constructed to take on the role of the various defensive turrets that were destroyed in the Meireki fire and not rebuilt. 

The Great Fire of Meireki was essentially an environmental disaster, and the shogun’s government responded to it in environmental terms. Part of the reason you may not have heard of the Great Fire of Meireki is that Edo suffered numerous catastrophic fires between 1600 and 1868. This one was merely the largest but it was hardly unique. Still, after the disaster, the government took measures to try to reduce the flammability of the city by ordering straw and thatched roofs to be covered over with mud. Fire and building codes often followed disasters of this kind, and Japan was no exception. Ietsuna also embarked on a campaign of planned rebuilding, which is something that also often follows large city fires.

If the story of the Great Fire of Meireki sounds eerily reminiscent of the Great Fire of London, which happened only six years later, it should. The cause of each was essentially irrelevant, but the manner of the cities’ construction, the way the fire spread and its effects on the development of the city it burned are all remarkably similar. Unfortunately Edo–eventually Tokyo–did not become marginally safer from fire until more modern times. Still largely built of wood and paper houses, the same thing happened after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and especially the fire-bombing by American bombers in 1945 at the end of World War II. Both fires destroyed Tokyo as badly as the Fire of Meireki did. Today of course Japan has been rebuilt with a lot of concrete and steel, but we shouldn’t get too complacent about our modern sensibilities; even large skyscrapers can be very susceptible to fire, and the kind of colossal city-wide firestorm that seared Edo in 1657 is by no means beyond the realm of possibility today.

The header image is a contemporary (17th century) Japanese screen depicting the Great Fire of Meireki consuming the city of Edo (click for greater detail). The photo of the Edo Castle turret is by Wikimedia Commons user WPPilot and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (attribution) license.